“I’ve been a member of the committee for nearly 30 years and I’ve never heard testimony like this. Never!” said Sen. John McCain, the chairman of. the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Testifying before the committee on Thursday Sept 17, Gen. Lloyd Austin, commander of U.S. Central Command, contritely admitted that the 10-month, $500 million U.S. effort to train and equip moderate Syrian rebels currently has managed to put only “four or five” fighters on the ground. This, presumably, is what is left after the first batch of 54 trained-and-equipped “moderates” were quickly ambushed by the al-Nusra Front – from whom General Petraeus would like to strip off more “moderates” – shortly after being dropped into Syria last month. Rebel sources said Turkey tipped off al-Nusra, but this has been roundly denied in all official quarters.
Democrats, Daily Beast condescendingly notes, were as flabbergasted as Republicans. “Perhaps some of the $500 million to train moderate Syrian fighters should go to proven Kurdish forces instead, Sen. Claire McCaskill mused. Maybe the Pentagon should do more to counter ISIS’s aggressive online campaign, Sen. Mazie Hirono tossed out to the hearing room.” (ISIS media savvy has awed Western commentators at the Council for Foreign Relations and at Foreign Policy; they assume, thereby, this is a caliphate for the ages.)
At the hearing, McCain himself reiterated the idea of instituting a “buffer zone” presumably of the nature that theoretically has been sketched out in negotiations between Turkey and the US that concluded last month. He did not spell out the precise means of attaining the buffer zone however, and many believe that little would be achievable without he coordination of significant numbers of ground troops.
Daily Beast summarizes the position of the brass: “none of those ideas (proposed by Senate committee members) alone are enough to defeat ISIS, Austin and Wormuth essentially said.” (That’s Christine Wormuth, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, who testified with General Austin). “And the senators stopped short of proposing U.S. ground troops or a wider U.S. effort.” We may note in passing, however, that General Austin “slipped up” and said we already have Special Forces units on the ground in Syria (as we do in Iraq). That was retracted hours later in a Pentagon release. It was a bad day for General Austin.
Given that US policy’s one intractable aim is to oust Assad, –oh! and ISIS too! — the imperative for ground troops is the elephant in the room. It is a cautiously handled subject in official quarters, even if Thomas Friedman and other neo-cons are making no secret of their belief that sending US troops to Syria is the only way we can get those refugees to stay home. More discreet Pentagon heads may wish the same, but no serious proposal has yet been entertained by the present administration.
Gen Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff until two weeks ago (Sept 7), has shepherded the Obama administration’s ‘unofficial wartime’ stance, playing good cop, and urging a “cautious” approach to intervention in Syria. But we are talking ‘caution’ as it is listed in the imperial lexicon, not ‘caution’ as most speakers of English would understand it. A cautious approach in 21st century American military jargon means intermittent airstrikes; peace is already off the table; in particular, it does not involve diplomacy with Assad, still by far the strongest single military and popular force in the country.
Though US officials repeat ad nauseam that guns will not do the job, and that we need a political solution, they propose no practical way towards that solution and indeed pre-empt it since they refuse to even consider talking with Assad, who was, whether they like it or not, elected by an overwhelming majority in a generally well-run election. Well, let us leave a peaceful resolution out of the picture too for the moment, since it seems lacking in the imagination of US policy makers. Is the US gaming for an infantry invasion of Syria?
Most assume progress cannot be made with airstrikes alone, even if the coalition only wishes to enforce a “no fly” or “buffer zone.” The complaint that our best efforts to train-and-equip “moderates”, especially those that might pass for Syrians, has failed, might easily be taken by force of logic to lead to putting our own boys’ boots on the ground.
This potentially works in Iraq, where we officially recognize the legitimacy of al-Abadi’s government, but disparage his abilities to protect Iraqis or American interests. It works yet more splendidly in Syria, where the US refuses minimally to recognize Assad’s legitimacy, asserting with little to no evidence that he has willingly engaged in mass murder of his civilian opposition. Therefore, just because McCain couldn’t bring himself to say the words, we should not assume US ground troops may not wind up invading Syrian soil.
If our moderates were so miserably humiliated in Syria, we may recall that a similar hand-wringing about the abilities of our allies were occasioned by the Iraqi army inexplicably melting away before vastly inferior numbers of ISIS fighters at the fall of Ramadi in May. Defense Secretary Ashes-to-ashes Carter was scathing about the fighting abilities of the Iraqi army, maligning them as lacking the “will to fight.” (The PUK and the Peshmerga in northern, autonomous Kurdish Iraq, with whom US troops are already embedded: that’s a different story.)
The Iraqis complain (and some Americans defend them in similar terms): the US tore to pieces an effective and highly-trained army with “de-Ba’athization” in the post-Saddam era. A lot of ground needs yet to be made up. In Iraq, the Pentagon is wracked with a moral dilemma: to what extent can we erode the sovereignty of our ally in order to safeguard the Homeland from terrorists that have grown up in that land since we began depositing our shit there. In the case of Syrian sovereignty, no such qualms need be considered. And yet, all is still quiet on that front in official quarters.
For the time being, proxies are set to work in Syria, and pressure is brought to bear on the international stage. The US and its allies have done everything they can to de-legitimate Assad and to isolate and erode the Syrian army as well. Assad pre-empted their best efforts by retreating from Kurdish territories in the north and northeast shortly after hostilities broke out in 2012. He has amassed his forces along the line of cities in the west, and guarded their corridors and access to Alawite and Hezbollah territories in the Lebanese mountains.
This has meant that the Kurds have been the most effective American allies against ISIS, but they have not been engaged in anti-Assad hostilities. The Free Syrian Army, among the early favorites of McCain and the neo-cons, is still active in isolated areas, but the more overtly Islamist Sunni groups , like Jubhat al-Nusra, al-Ahrar al-Sham, and ISIS, have won the day even in the hearts and minds of US neo-cons. While Petraeus wants to engage the “moderates” of al-Nusra, others prefer the rising fortunes of Ahrar al-Sham. How long before we hold out our hands to ISIS in order to ally against the newest and yet darker and more barbaric interpretation of Islam next to emerge from the thinktanks of DC and Langley?
It could be that the moment for the bad cop has now arrived. It was perhaps announced last week when notice of a “rebellion” in the intelligence ranks emerged. Fifty top intel officers complained publicly that their bleak assessments of the year-long campaign against ISIS were altered by their superiors at Centcom and in the Obama administration to advertise a more favorable evaluation of our progress. General Allen already addressed this issue in the fawning interview by Martha Raddatz (ABC News) on September 12, arguing that the more favorable evaluations were a result of information deriving from other sources.
The lack of public official consideration about the imminent need for an employment of ground troops, even from administration hawks like General Allen, suggests this is not the next move. Airstrikes have just become more effective. When Turkey granted the US the use of Incirlik airbase for aerial attacks in Syria, this, and Turkey’s stated willingness to join the fight against ISIS, was hailed as a “game-changer” by the State Department. Incirlik indeed grants the US unprecedented proximity to north Syria. It is perhaps not coincidental that shortly afterwards Russia reportedly began beefing up its presence around the nearby naval base at Tartous, its only Mediterranean port and long a fixture of Russian/Soviet presence in Syria. A month earlier Erdogan had stated he felt Putin was ready to let Assad go; how times have changed.
It well may be that at a subsequent, the US intent has been to send in ground troops, to finish the job, to check Syria off the neo-con “7 countries in 5 years” plan that General Wesley Clark spoke about, as if aghast, on Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now in 2007. If this is the case, then McCain’s bluster hides a plan. Perhaps he can convince Petraeus: If failed states can’t handle their terrorist problems, then its US troops thats gotta do it. “If you want something done right, you gotta do it yourself”, seems to be the hawkish implication behind Defense Secretary Carter’s admonitions about Iraqi troops. It also is what McCain must bite the bullet and conclude about his costly, but miserably ineffective “moderates”.
However, McCain’s bluster may in fact be genuine, and his outrage indeed may hide something other than his hopes for expanded war, or even his feelings for wasted taxpayer expense. For Russia has now slipped between the cessation of Phase One (good cop phase) and the start of Phase Two (bad cop phase) to enter as a third policing party, just trying to lend a hand with a problem facing us all. Putin’s offers of cooperative efforts against ISIS have caught the US at a bad moment. “Why of course you can help!” they say, “but not in a way that gives assistance to Assad”. Since Assad’s army is in fact the most effective anti-ISIS force, not the Kurds (all due respect), then that is basically impossible. State Department spokesmen Toner and Kirby have twisted themselves in extraordinary knots these last few days trying to explain the US position even to an unreasonably sympathetic press. If Putin has called their bluff, let us hope the US recognizes when it is a good time to fold.